Gilded Age author Edith Wharton may have enjoyed designing discord in her novels, but certainly not in her drawing room. Now her decorating insights find fresh life in designer Thomas Jayne’s new book, Classical Principles for Modern Design (The Monacelli Press).
With co-author Ted Loos, Jayne breaks down Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses (her seminal interior design guide co-written by architect Ogden Codman) and reimagines their advice for modern living. Though some essentials have changed a century onwards (Wharton preferred to discuss ballrooms over kitchens), the duo’s call for harmonious, thoughtful rooms feels more relevant than ever.
In the stunning tome, Jayne makes an ideal missionary for traditional design — a style that effortlessly infuses ease into historic spaces. The book even includes Jayne’s elegant redesign of the study at Wharton’s iconic summer home, dubbed The Mount.
We spoke with the designer about tackling the iconic text and on his enduring love for classical decor.
What inspired you to write a book based on The Decoration of Houses?
I’ve always been fascinated with advice literature, and The Decoration of Houses was such an important book for interior design. It’s that classic question of what works and what doesn’t, and how that influences our present. Tradition is an active process, never passive.
You often quote Edith and Odgen’s witty (sometimes vinegary) asides in the book. What was it like writing in response to them?
Advice lit can be so didactic sometimes that you have to laugh. For example, Edith said everything after the French Revolution was debased. But I find that there’s often insight in humor — what makes you laugh can also make you think. I may not agree with her. I do think some good things came after the Revolution. But she was responding to the excess she found in Victorian-era homes. What’s funny bears discussion, even if you don’t find it true.
What do you think Edith and Odgen would have to say about our modern homes?
They would say we’ve cheated ourselves. We don’t allow ourselves the luxury of discrete rooms, of comfort and privacy. We don’t allow ourselves time. Everything instead becomes condensed, fast and efficient, and there’s harm in efficiency if it cheats us of our experiences.
Which Gilded Age rooms would you love to see more of?
In the book, I made an argument for a real dining room, tapping into the spirit of having ballrooms as a special and festive place. It’s really OK to have a room just for special occasions. Why not have a beautifully decorated space just dedicated to being social? Two other rooms that are underplayed are the vestibule and front hall. I love the beauty of a gracious entry, or even a nice mudroom off the kitchen. So much better than hauling your grocery bags through the garage, tripping over things. We shouldn’t be afraid of allowing ourselves more hyphen spaces.
Which Gilded Age design feature would you like to see more of today?
Decorated ceilings would be a great restored aspect. And of course all the beautiful wallpaper. Digital printing has made so much more possible. (Though Edith herself really hated wallpaper.)
If you could spend an afternoon with Edith and Ogden, what would you do?
I would love to have them at our offices. Can you imagine Edith and Ogden at Thomas Jayne Designs? It would be fantastic to have them for tea. We have really good dishes. They would approve of that. They might not approve of the vast array of wallpaper samples.